It’s bizarre that until recently skincare was an area of my life in which I’ve never taken an evidence-based approach. Over the years, I’ve bought countless cleansers, toners, moisturisers, creams, and serums, but never scrutinised the ingredients list to see if the products are capable of achieving the improvements that the marketing promises to deliver. It was only when I came across a (supposedly luxury) product that didn’t display an ingredients list (suspicious) that I realised that even if there had been a list, I wouldn’t have the foggiest on how to interpret it anyway.
Like many of my peers, I’ve chosen to use many products based on the recommendations of social media influencers. Though online communities can provide phenomenal resources for many aspects of beauty and skincare, it’s important to remember that this is also a world riddled with undeclared corporate sponsorships and affiliate links, often peddled by people who won the dermatologic lottery at birth. It’s important - especially if you have sensitive skin - to know how to tell apart quality from quackery.
It’s so tempting and much easier to just believe the myths, to let your vulnerabilities succumb to the advertorial language of improvement. Better, brighter, clearer, dewier… all available at a price point that easily costs more than half your rent. Based on the prices of many products, you’d think that some of the ingredients are harvested on the moon.
But for those of us looking for specific results, or for those who just want to make sure that what we buy is actually formulated to care for our skin, there’s an entire body of science behind effective skincare. It’s a mix of chemistry, pharmacology, and human physiology, and raises lots of questions like: what balance of humectants, emollients, and/or occlusives do your moisturising products contain? What pH range does an ingredient need to be in order to function properly? What other factors affect the efficacy of various active and inactive ingredients?
A few months ago, Taylor Behnke posted a video about her own journey learning about cosmetic chemistry and her frustration when people ask why more girls aren’t interested in STEM subjects. “...they are [interested],” says Behnke. “...you just don’t think that the kinds of science that they’re engaging with already in their everyday lives are science – because girls like them.”
Outside the walls of her high school science classes, Behnke discovered an entire community of people who “want to know what the shit they’re putting on their face.” People who are fed up with dubious marketing and just want to know if the ingredients in the products they’re applying have peer-reviewed scientific research backing up their efficacy, are formulated at the appropriate concentrations, and are “stabilised and packaged correctly so that they still work by the time that we get them home from the store, into our bathroom cabinet, and onto our face two months later.”
Our skin is our largest and most visible organ - the one with which everybody develops some form of ritual over their lifetime. As Vanessa Crofskey writes in her essay Picking at the Surface, skincare “can be an affirming and enabling ritual of identity”.
It’s the weak spots in this relationship between skincare and self-concept that the billion-dollar beauty industry targets for profit. So while it doesn’t matter whether your skincare routine consists of a minimalist face-wash-and-moisturiser combo or an elaborate multi-step regime, it does matter that you don’t take the marketing at face value. The science may seem daunting at first. But there are some great cosmetic chemistry communicators striving to make it possible for us to be empowered consumers who leave empty promises to expire on store shelves.
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